This is why Mary applied for a transfer. Now that it was approved, she was moving on up. It was high time she left Jasper behind, never again suffering under his hawk-like gaze. As she zipped up the crimson and snow-colored dress for the last time, she smiled at her reflection in the tiny mirror welded to her spartan barrack’s room wall. Today was the last day of Bing Crosby and over-cooked stuffing. No more Skims groping her ass, asking if she had any presents up her skirt. No longer would she have to offer those “presents.” Tomorrow, she would wake up anew, ready for her new assignment as a Homemaker Reality Worker.
Fastening her black leather belt, she reached for the keypad and swiftly entered the code, her manicured nails clicking against the worn plastic. The secured locker swept forward, revealing the perfect pearl necklace Jasper mandated she wore. They were smooth in her fingers, a tiny piece of Before. With a sigh, she draped it against her bare collarbone, flicking the clasp open and shut. Sucking in a deep breath, she swept a loose blonde curl out of her face and smiled at herself again.
“You can do this.” That was all the pep talk she could afford. Drex—and Jasper—wouldn’t tolerate lateness.
Leaning against the greasy metal banister, she carefully headed down the worn stairs of the four-story barracks hall. Over one hundred barracks were carved into the building, the constant cacophony of lost souls echoing down the bare hallways.
The subway trip was mercifully short. Every month the crowds grew thicker, smellier, meaner. The ever-expanding population stuffed together like sardines everywhere you looked, from the sidewalks to the high-rises. It made the commute uncomfortable, at best. In the summer, it morphed into an oven-like tomb. Today, the steaming ocean breeze brushed against Mary’s Plasti-Spray, the makeup protector refusing to permit sweat. Another one of Jasper’s mandates. Real Wives didn’t sweat. She wished her armpits would get the message. She flapped her arms like a duck, ignoring the alarmed look of passersby.
The flashing Nostalgia Unlocked sign greeted her, lighting up the decrepit brick wall. Sliding her palm into the scanner, wincing at the heat emanating off the black plasti-mel. The four-inch-thick metal door swung inwards, the sunshine barely touching the deep, dark hallway. The air conditioning hit her moist skin, and goosebumps sprung, chilling her to the bone. It’s almost over.
Heels clacking against the outdated linoleum tiles, she nodded at the angry-looking bouncer guarding the elevator. He pressed a meaty finger against the button that would lead her to the Christmas pod. The doors groaned as they slid open. The other day she heard the bouncer discussing with a lackey about it hadn’t been serviced since before the Anti-Privacy Act, which meant it was a death-trap waiting to happen. One last time. After today, this chunk of metal could become a metal coffin for someone else. The doors closed reluctantly, and it rose into the air with creaks and moans.
Mary eagerly stepped out into the main hall, already excited for the day to end. The sickly sweet smell of peppermint filled the air, Let It Snow already quietly wafting into every corner of the hallway. There were six Christmas pods. Four of the six were flashing, alerting passersby of the current engagement. Mary strutted to the end of the hall and entered the code for her own pod. The dented door slid into the wall, revealing her pristine pod. It was going to be a good day. She had been working for the Overseers for three years now. In three years, she would reinvent herself and walk away from the charades sold every day.
Flipping the set lights on, Mary surveyed the foyer. This particular set was based on a cozy cabin Christmas. Warm-colored wood covered the walls, with matching furniture carefully placed around in the rooms, red pillows, and blankets draped in various spots. Mary closed the door behind her and kicked her walking shoes off, slipping the black pleather heels on with a grimace. The pain steeled her determined. She could leave this life if she just impressed Drax.
She had cleaned the set thoroughly last night, so all she had to do was turn on the fire and the tree. The soft notes of cheery holiday songs automatically turn on when the main light switches are flipped. It would repeat for the next twelve hours.
When everything alight, Mary went to the kitchen to begin making the traditional dinner. Ham, stuffing, fluffy yeast rolls, and whatever surprise option the cooks concoct. Everything had to be perfect. Once the chefs sent up whatever surprise dish they had whipped, the scene would be flawless.
Ten minutes before Drax was set to arrive, Mary did a quick once-over in the mirror. Her big blue eyes shined against the red headband trapping the rest of her sunshine-colored hair. The cozy wool dress clung to her curves and, of course, her makeup was flawless. She looked delicious. An equally edible prop.
Right at 3 p.m., a knock boomed at the door. Mary sighed with irritation. The bouncer had clearly forgotten to alert her. Taking a deep breath, she smoothed the edges of her dress before unlocking the door. She looked up, expecting…something different. His name made him sound like a huge burly man, with tattoos and maybe a couple of scars. Someone far more tolerable than this wheezing man who stared expectantly. A bead of sweat rolled down his fleshy cheek, sliding into his bushy mustache. What was left of his hair was slicked back with globs of grease, the strands gleaming in the fluorescent hallway lighting. He peered up at her, his eyes immediately landing on her plumped-up breasts. She bent over a little, giving them a subtle squeeze with her forearms.
“Mr. Armalando, it’s a pleasure.” Her soft, childlike voice was breathy and demure. He appraised her cooly, his eyes flitting around at the scene behind her. She stepped back, smelling old fried food as he waddled past her. Brandishing a clipboard and pen, he immediately began taking notes.
“May I take your coat, Mr. Armalando?”
He shook his head and walked through the hallway and into the living room. She followed him, holding her hands tightly, carefully avoiding the nervous knuckle-cracking habit.
He stopped in the middle of the living room, taking in the scene. Everything about it was perfect, from the crushed red velvet couch to the holo-photos on the window sill, showing a picture of him and her on vacation on a tropical beach. It was one of the small touches the Full Experience provided. The set designers generated fake memories with his government-issued computer graphic, which added a subtle flair to the overall feeling. He took notice, peering at the walnut sill above the fire, reaching up on his tippy toes to get a closer look. Trying to be helpful, Mary walked over and grabbed one of the frames so he could see it better. This was a mistake. The moment she began to try and assist, his eyes flashed with disapproval, sniffing with disdain.
“I don’t need help.” His voice was gravelly. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, the frame almost toppling over as she shoved it back onto the sill. He made a note and moved on, heading towards the tree.
“Of course, I’m so sorry. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Begin your performance,” he commanded. Flustered, her smile faltered before she gathered herself and delivered a bright flash of bleached teeth.
“Of course, honey. I wouldn’t want Santa to put me on the naughty list, right?” She winked at him and turned towards the dining room, sashaying her hips in exaggerated swings. The quaint kitchen table, a centerpiece to the Christmas experience, was draped in a coordinated river of satin that brushed against pristine white carpet. It gleamed with pops of gold table settings, the crystal glasses sparkling in the perfectly lit room. The smell of peppermint was stronger here, only because the food would overpower it momentarily. Her stomach rolled at the stench. She pulled out a chair, beckoning him with a finger.
“Honey, I made a spot just for you. Why don’t you take a seat, and I’ll cook up a delicious dinner for just the two of us?”
It was a visible effort to climb onto the chair, rolling around like a plump potato. Mary grabbed a vibrant gold napkin and leaned over to lay it on his lap, brushing nails against his thighs. Their faces were close, and she could smell his coffee breath. Turning to look at him, she nuzzled his nose with hers. He leaned into it, sniffing the air. He smelled like downtown Restival, the dank and rotting stench of a world best avoided. Upclose, she could see blown blood vessels spidering around his nostrils, with small nose hairs peeking out. For the first time, the smell of peppermint would be a relief.
“Baby, would you like anything to drink?” She stood but stepped closer, her belly button level with his gaze.
“What do you have.”
“Hot chocolate made with real chocolate and milk, champagne, apple cider, and of course, eggnog.”
He blanched at the last offering. “Champagne.”
She blew him a kiss. “Coming right up!”
Just as she was about to walk into the kitchen and past the swinging door, she faked tripping. Falling forward on her knees, she revealed her see-through lace panties. Throwing a smile over her shoulder, she gracefully stood, attempting to look embarrassed.
“So sorry about that. I’m such a klutz sometimes.” With a giggle, she waltzed into the kitchen, letting the door swing to a standstill behind her.
The smell of ham filled her nose, the pungent smell of genetically cloned dead meat causing her to blanch. Frowning, she realized the surprise dish hadn’t arrived yet. Pressing the kitchen button embedded in the granite countertop, she waited for the intercom to activate. After a few seconds, a tired voice responded.
“Hi, uh, yes, this is Mary with Christmas pod six? I don’t have my surprise dish.”
There was a pause, long enough to make her nervous. Finally, the disembodied voice responded.
“Sending it up, right now.”
The granite countertop split in one smooth motion, and a dumbwaiter lifted from the depths of the building, revealing a silver serving dish. In the center was a matching silver bowl full of crushed cranberries. She hesitated, unsure of what to do next. Cranberries had never been served before. The fruit was almost extinct and forbidden. The temptation to sample the forbidden fruit was strong, but she refrained. They watched her closely. If she was lucky, she could scarf down the leftovers. The image of his rotund belly made her sigh. Leftovers were unlikely today.
Each dish was delivered with a flourish, her voice carrying through the rooms as she chattered to him. “So, of course, the Markels canceled. They always do, don’t they? My parents threatened to come to visit if we don’t send them a card for New Years’, so I have a photographer coming next week to get that done. Is that okay with you?”
She placed the ham in the center of the table, hoping he might take the bait and answer back. A silent Skim, especially an inspector, was nerve-wracking. He ignored her, scribbling with the black pen. Unnerved, she continued to chatter about their made-up life as she brought out each dish, trying to stay chipper. It’s almost over. When all of the food was served, minus the cranberries, an idea appeared. Peering around the swinging door, she gave him a big smile, ignoring his sour glare.
“Snookums, I have quite the surprise for you! Now, close your eyes!”
He raised an eyebrow, but to her relief, he obeyed. Lifting the silver platter, she revealed the silver platter with the biggest smile she could muster.
“The manager at the store owed me a favor, and guess what he saved for me? Real cranberries! What a Christmas miracle, right?”
Finally, he responded. “I haven’t had cranberries since I was a little kid!” He sounded ecstatic. She giggled.
“I know! The moment he offered them, I just knew it would make my snookums day.”
She placed the platter down in front of him, making a show of scooping out a big spoonful. The ham was pre-carved, so she only had to lift the cooked flesh onto his plate, nestled next to a large serving of stuffing and one of the fresh buns. She arranged it all onto his plate, making use of her food presentation training. Normally, the Skims focus on the ham since it’s one of the rarest meats in the world, but Trax stared at the cranberries. Was he drooling? It was almost impossible to hide the disgust. Instead, she leaned down and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Her lips came away tasting of salt.
“Eat up, love. You don’t want it to get cold, do you?”
He snatched his fork, digging in like one of the starving children on the street. The cranberries were a perfect deep red, jiggling with each voracious scoop shoveled into his gaping maw. Within seconds, a red rim stained his mustache. Bits of cranberry already on the floor. Wasteful fuck. She brought some food to her own plate, although she was only allowed five bites in front of Skims.
The meal disappeared within minutes, the cranberries devoured in mere seconds. Mary was crestfallen. She had really hoped to try them when he left. He smacked his lips with satisfaction. Leaning back into the chair, he slapped his distended belly.
“Those were delicious.”
She smiled proudly. “Thank you! I’m so glad you liked them.”
Ignoring the rest of the food, he turned his attention back to his clipboard. “How long have you been doing this?”
“How long have you been indentured?”
“Three. The first year was Breaking and Training.”
“A whole year?”
Her cheeks reddened. “It was a difficult adjustment.”
He nodded. It wasn’t uncommon for Full Experience indentured Reals to require extra breaking.
“And you no longer struggle to offer FEs to Skims?”
He looked up at her, his cheeks flushing. She noticed a glob of cranberry hanging from his facial hair, his napkin unused. It was an odd sense of irony, being permitted a taste of the forbidden ambrosia in the most disgusting way. He bared his teeth into a mocking smile.
She had really hoped it wouldn’t come down to this, but she knew it was a possibility. The prospect had seemed more appealing when she had imagined him as tall and burly. Bile burned in her throat.
She reached for him, her perfectly manicured nails catching his eye. He grabbed her hand and wiggled off the chair so he could follow her to the living room. The Christmas Experience didn’t have a bedroom, so Full Experiences had to be conducted on the couch, which most Skims appreciated. It added an air of naughtiness at odds to the cheery decorations.
Once they reached the velvet couch, she waited for him to lift himself onto the soft cushions. She turned away from him, hoping the Plasti-Spray would hold up. Wives don’t sweat.
As the sound of Santa, Baby picked up, she swayed her hips to the beat and slowly unzipped the front of her dress. Her breasts spilled out, barely held in by the racy bra. Keeping her impossibly high heels on, she lowered her eyelids, aiming to look full of lust.
Pretending to lip-sync to the song, she slowly walked over to him, hiding the slimy feeling inching through her gut. Providing Full Experiences didn’t often happen on her set; the Skims generally just wanted the food. She knew that hesitation would be noticed and noted. Drax must be impressed. Drax stared at her, hunger etched into his features. She reached back and unhooked her bra, letting her recently bought breasts gently swing as they were released. The salivating tongue slimed against his lips, which parted like a baby ready for milk. Turning her brain off, Mary straddled him, feeling his hard-on through his khakis. As her body did its duty, her thoughts took a vacation. First thing she would do when her indenture was over was a complete makeover. Plump her lips like Bambi Lustover. Purchase curvy hips like Samantha Tushwink. New skin-toning sounded appealing. It was all the rage. Brand new ember-kissed skin that made her look like she had been tanning all her life. She would even have enough to buy a whole new wardrobe. Drax just needed to give a glowing review.
Except he’s looking a bit peckish. She looked down at him, one breast shoved into his mouth, but instead of sucking on them, his face was turning a lovely shade of puce. He unlatched from her nipple and began gasping for air.
“Are you okay, honey?” she breathed, trying to maintain her role. It could be a test. He belched in response. The expelled air smelled like old hotdogs and cranberries. He no longer looked at her. His stomach gurgled loudly, threatening a second belch. Dropping all pretense, she lifted herself off his lap and sat down next to him, trying to understand the turn of events.
“Mr. Armalando, are you okay? Can I get you some water?”
Vomit spewed onto his lap. A blood-colored chunk slopped onto the virgin white carpet. He looked at her with wide eyes, grabbing for his throat. This wasn’t a test.
“Drax! Oh my god, Drax!. What’s happening?!”
Mary scrambled towards the front door for the red button that brought in the guards. She slammed it with a fist. A loud alarm began to sound, telling the whole floor that a Skim hadn’t behaved. Except by the time the guards arrived, all they could see was Drax lumped over in the fetal position, heaving blood. Or cranberries. It was impossible to tell in this Christmas-themed crime scene. The guards rushed over, shouting out commands to one another. She recognized one of them, Rick, who began to try and resuscitate Drax. A rib cracked, but Drax didn’t feel it.
“What did he eat?” Rick demanded, looking up with fury. She worried at a hangnail, ruining her manicure.
“The..the cranberries that the cooks sent up.”
“Yes! I don’t know what happened.” A guard brushed by her, hitting one of her bare breasts. She reached for her dress, a chill setting in.
“Don’t touch that,” Rick snapped. “You don’t know what is on it,” he explained. She nodded.
“Can I go put on my robe at least?”
“Fine. Then sit down.”
She did as she was ordered. As soon as her black silk robe was knotted tightly around her waist, she sat in the corner, observing the chaos. The set was now filled with at least a dozen people, all shouting and scurrying around, trying to revive Drax. It was too late. She had seen enough dead people growing up to recognize the signs. What did this mean for her?
Finally, everyone saw what she saw: Drax wasn’t coming back. His corpse was a rainbow of dead colors. Poison. At first, she was relieved. Maybe a new Overseer would make her do another inspection. Perhaps that one would shower prior. What if they don’t believe you? The quiet sinister voice made her blood run cold. No, that wouldn’t happen. She was one of the best employees. They wouldn’t squander an investment like that. Right?
After a few hours, the set and scene were processed by Crime Analytics. No one had questioned her yet. Even though murder wasn’t illegal, it still didn’t bode well for her future. Finally, Jasper came into the set, the stench of smoke wafting around him like a cloud. He wore a ripped brown leather jacket, a gun holstered onto his hip. His normally slicked-back hair was a mess, and some ratty jeans and a t-shirt replaced his usual suit. He had clearly just woken up and came over as soon as he heard.
“What the fuck happened, Mary?”
She burst into tears. “I don’t know! I gave him dinner, and he asked for an FE, but just as I began, he just started choking!”
He leaned over and grabbed her chin roughly. “Stop fucking crying, Mary. What. Did. You. Do.”
His words only made her sob even harder. “I fed him what the kitchen made. It isn’t my fault. I didn’t do it, I swear.”
He let go of her chin and stepped back. “This was your mid-indenture inspection, right?” She nodded.
“Do you think somehow you won’t be inspected now?”
She looked at him, her eyes wide with surprise. “No, of course not. I just wanted to get it over with.”
“So you thought making him a little sick might help?”
She bolted upright out of the chair, feeling indignant. “I don’t do this, okay? I don’t know how or why someone wanted him dead. All I know is that they used me to do it.”
He gave her a long look. “You know what the contract says about this.”
It was a statement, not a question. Every indenture memorizes their entire contract, the words becoming a mantra, for a minimum of six years. Unless the indentured screws up, like killing an Overseer. Then an additional decade is tacked on. She began to panic, reaching for him with desperation.
“Jas, you know me. You know I wouldn’t do something like this. I do my job. I show up every day and do my job. I swear I had nothing to do with this.”
“That’s not what the cooks say.” His eyes were narrowed slits. He shook her off and walked further backward. She looks at him with confusion.
“What do you mean?”
He smirks. “You dated that Ben guy, right?”
“Yeah, sure. Months ago.”
“Well, Ben says that you bribed him to put some mysterious powder into the cranberries.”
She gasped, a hand popping to her mouth, smearing the perfect red lipstick. “That’s not true! How can he say that!”
Jasper ignored her and whipped out his ComCell. He pressed a button and held it up to his ear, turning away from her. Her insides liquefied, limbs shaking with shock. How could Ben say that she had something to do with this? They hadn’t even spoken since winter. None of this made any sense.
“Chuck, it’s what we thought. Yeah, come and get’r.”
He put the phone back into his pocket and turned to look at her. “You’re going to the Trixsters.”
“No, please don’t!” Mary wailed. She would never make it out alive. Someone had set her up. She reached for him again, pleading, but he slapped her in the face. She fell to the ground, tears streaming down her face.
“Shut the fuck up, you dumb bitch. You were never gonna get away with this.”
“Jas, please. Don’t do this.”
Two large men dressed in black appeared at the doorway, waiting for Jasper’s order. He gave a jerk of his head, and they barreled down on Mary, yanking her up in the air by her arms. She tried to fight, but they were prepared. She felt a sting in her neck, and her body immediately felt heavy. The world began to fade.
“I spoke with Merril down at the Trix station. He said you’ll need retraining, but he’s positive you’ll be useful.”
“Please…” she mumbled, her speech slurred. “Someone else…”
Her chin slammed into her chest. One of the guards slung the prone form over his shoulder. The Real weighed nothing to him.
The elevator opened and closed with a high-pitched screech, making the guards wince.
“Are they ever going to fix this damn thing?” one of them asked. The other shrugged, jostling Mary over his shoulder.
“Who knows. Let’s just hope we don’t die in here.”
The other guard agreed. “There are better places to die.”
The elevator loudly protested as it descended the rusty shaft. It was just another journey of many yet to come.